Atomic Traits of Strategic Leaders

Abstract: Effective strategies are delivered by strategic leaders, individuals able to grasp the big picture and produce a way forward that ultimately solves the critical challenges of an organization. What are the characteristics specific to strategic leaders as opposed to general leadership traits? I am sure various sectors of our society can deliver relevant answers to this question. ATOMIC represents a condensed list of traits I observed particularly among successful military strategists:

– Agnosticism Towards the Obvious
– Time Focus
– Outside-In Orientation
– Multi-Options Determination
– Innovative Attitude
– Constant Adaptation


Can strategic planning pay off? This question was asked by Louis V. Gerstner, former CEO if IBM in an article published by McKinsey Quarterly in 1973. His question and ensuing guidelines are as relevant today as thirty years ago. Mr. Gerstner identified strategic planning as a fundamentally difficult process, but also capable of delivering significant competitive advantage. He highlights empirical evidence showing a high rate of failure among organizations embarked in this effort. The article continued by highlighting the most fundamental weakness of most corporate plans: they do not lead to major decisions that must be currently made to ensure future success.

Several factors can significantly derail either strategy planning or execution, ultimately preventing major decisions from realization. Internal forces (usually led by organizational culture) tend to prevent change from status quo. Environmental factors in the surrounding industry can introduce unforeseen changes rendering current strategies ineffective. In any case, strategic failures lie on the shoulders of upper management. At the source of most failed strategies one finds leaders that failed to either understand or properly attack real challenges as compared to the competition. In order to have a sustainable strategy, an organization needs someone capable to grasp the big picture and produce a way forward that addresses the critical few challenges deemed truly strategic. Simply put, successful strategies are led by strategic leaders.

If the quality of the leadership team plays a critical role in defining and executing strategy, what are the characteristics of strategic leaders, and what tools can be used to both develop and apply these qualities? I can think of courage, confidence and humility; however such traits should be expected in leaders at all levels of an organization and may not singularly address the ability to formulate good strategies. What else makes a leader “strategic”? As I pondered the this question, I felt compelled to consider leaders and mentors I observed in military. Several common qualities emerged as I brainstormed through a list spanning 15 years of direct observation, stories relayed by colleagues and historical writings. I submit to you the acronym ATOMIC (Agnosticism towards the obvious, Time focus, Outside-in orientation, Multi-options seeker, Innovative attitude, Constantly adapting to change) as a condensed list of characteristics these leaders had in common. I selected these six general groups from a multitude of personal examples among the studied leaders. Next, I attempted to explain each without particularly identifying analysis points such as weight of average or singular examples. Need be, further correlations can be displayed. Below follows an expanded explanation of each trait and a list of perspectives, practices and frameworks that can help enhance the respective characteristics:

Agnosticism Towards the Obvious: Doubt ( not disregard) your preconceived notions and opinions. Slow down the decision making process when able. Obvious solutions (a.k.a. ” solution that stare us in the face”) are dangerous. On one hand, such strategies could offer rapid gains… However, they limit perspective by channelizing attention to one particular solution. One should employ various perspectives to challenge the obvious. Application of framework analysis is a potential counter to jumping on quick, obvious solutions. Testing ideas through various frames/ points of view expands both breadth and depth of analysis. Frameworks help you consider several perspectives. These frameworks should reveal different points of view, and challenge the “obvious”. I have personally experienced both rapid fire leaders and strategic visionaries. By far, the second group seemed to produce more comprehensive solutions.
Tools: business expansion models (ex.: ANSOFF Matrix), war gaming, what-if-analysis, pro/ against coordinated debates.

Time Focus: Time is the measure of all things. Disregarding the time dimension can lead to disastrous results when dealing with strategic efforts. Leaders at all levels define goals and objectives in terms of time. How long will it take you to accomplish X versus Y is always a valid question. However, the strategic effort in particular is hard to correlate with a timeframe. Paradoxically, time can deliver the greatest penalty in the strategic context. Many managers able to correlate tasks to time in concentrated work are encountering difficulties when pairing up vision, and mission to end states. Meanwhile, strategic leaders are able to continue time integration beyond tactical or operational realms, and into strategic analysis. On a side note, correlation of accountability to time is a great leading indicator as to the relevance of the strategy to the organization.
Tools: basic project management, FIFO (first in, first out) process design, WIP work in progress) control methods, Gantt chart, Lean Manufacturing “Heijunka” boards.

Outside-In Orientation: When faced with a strategic challenge, consider the external environment and the stakeholders involved before looking inward at how to solve it. Explore the world in front of you and keep your eyes on the horizon. Always start with the customer, stakeholder, or external entity you are supporting. Understand their point of view and organize your unit to deliver. Externally focused “positional strategies” can used internal “learning strategies” to complement their aims. Encourage learning, process improvement and education, thus involving other members of your organization in this process. But always remember that when there is a need, there is also a customer and you should always seek to gain external insight first.
Another way to view this concept is through context versus content analysis. Strategy has both context and content. Get the context right first. Avoid rushing into content. Reexamine both often, especially when something in the environment changes.
Tools: environmental analysis, process mapping ( ex.: SIPOC – supplier, input, process, output, customer – diagram), stakeholder analysis, customer activity mapping cycle, ethnographic research, industry analysis (Porter’s five forces).

Multi-options Perspective: Strategic leaders seek multiple solutions. They are not satisfied with a limited array of options. They demand consideration of more than one course of action. In making such demands, they also learn how organizational capabilities and outside requirements can best be combined. How can you develop this intrinsic need? Consider your position and the options both you and the competition have. Positional strategies look at competition and market (or playing field) and determine options to move from current situation to a future state. Reflect on prior cases and the options you had then. Keep learning and seek multiple options to your environment’s problems.
Tools: COA (Course of Action) Development and Comparison, Game Theory analysis, Monte-Carlo Simulation.

Innovative attitude: Be inquisitive and seek unusual, out of the box strategies. Challenge your perspectives by seeking contrarians with opposite points of view. Consider how to bridge paradoxes. Learn and experiment with new concepts. On a related note, use the strategic processes to also learn something about the organization and the operating environment. Learning strategies can deliver transformative effects in the long run through the acquired knowledge. Return on investment takes longer to collect, but it is more certain. Use it often. Creative problem solving can go hand in hand with effective management. The gel between the two is a three-fold combination between holistic view, rational approach to risk management and out of the box thinking.
Tools: Brainstorming, multi-voting, divergence-convergence exercises, business enterprise creativity tools (ex: ” The Innovation Wheel” by Wolcott and Lippitz), SCAMPER creativity exercise ( see

Constant Adaptation: Embrace change. Organizations able to adapt to the ever increasing rate of change tend to better survive the current environment. Strategic leaders that support (not just tolerate) change efforts are better able to both adapt themselves and enable their organizations to change with the times. They are curious, eager to learn, and their leadership style reflect this attitude. They encourage a learning process, seeking outside input and process improvement within. Strategy as learning connects the external environment with the inner-self of the organization through this improvement process. Continuous improvement plays a huge role in “applying learning” to real life. And the driver of learning and improvement is usually the leader. He or she demonstrates at the personal level as well as organizationally a constant adaptation and predisposition to change.
Tools: SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, customer insight methodologies (interviews, go and see trips), continuous research in and outside the respective industry, PEST (political, economic, social, technological) analysis, industry specific and general papers, publications etc.

In conclusion, strategic leaders have certain commonalities. I believe these commonalities enable them to grasp the big picture and identify the critical elements needed to be address. An effective strategy often involve solving a few critical issues, and it usually involves creating some essential trade-offs. “ATOMIC” traits can enable us to better see the critical issues and make the needed tradeoffs.


Sun Tzu, ” The Art of War”, ( multiple editions)
Louis V. Gerstner, “Can strategic planning pay off”, McKinsey Quarterly, December, 1973 Robert Wolcott & Michael Lippitz, “Grow from Within: Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation”, September, 2009 Michael Porter, “Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors”, June 1998
Colin Powell, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership”, 2014
Walter Borneman, “The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King–The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea”, 2013
William, Manchester, “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964”,


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